Portable headphones that sound (almost) their best out of portable sources
Sep 16, 2016 at 12:09 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 2

egokun

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I don't know if this has been discussed before. If so, I apologize.
 
So here's the thing. Shortly after I got my first iPod, back in the mid-2000's, I got lured in the well-known audophile "upgraditis" thing that so many Head-Fiers are accustomed to. I've tried different pieces of gear, I dreamed about high-end equipment well beyond my budget (and my actual needs), and I tried various - often cumbersome - rigs.
 
But in the end, I always come back to the iPod. Because no matter how good and alluring those high-end cans and amps and DACs may be, simplicity and convenience always turn out to be my first and foremost concern. I have no room, no need, and no time to enjoy big, heavy, expensive rigs that play lossless audio. I don't like to sit down in a specific spot of my house and severely limit my freedom of movement just to enjoy those ever-diminishing returns.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that that's not worth it. If you can afford it, and if it's a serious hobby for you, you should definitely invest the necessary time and money to build the rig of your aural dreams. What I'm saying is, that's not for me. High-bitrate lossy files are "good enough" for me, and if I enjoy a certain song that much, I do go lossless when ripping it, because I can hear the difference between FLAC and 320kbps. But I prefer portable sources. One small, pocket-sized device full of music; a portable, light, low-profile headphone or IEM, and I'm free to enjoy my music wherever I go, and whatever I have to do. I have considered, and even tried, solutions such as portable amps, amp/DACs, connection cables, dongles, etc: none of them really worked well in the end. I don't think that the bump in music quality is really worth the hassle. For me, less is better; but what little I have, I want to sound its best, because a simple portable rig can sound great.
 
So we come to my current dilemma. In the 10 years since I took my first steps in this whole audiophile thing, portable headphone technology has come a long, long way. The thing is, 10 years ago, the holy grails of universal portable audio on Head-Fi were the Shure E5c, and the Etymotic ER-4S. Already quite difficult to drive properly, but incredibly far from what we have now, both in price and technical complexity. They were considered expensive, and they were recommended for a limited audience. Meanwhile, other less expensive portable headphones were perfectly tailored for use with portable devices, and they did sound their best even out of the iPods and Walkmans of the time. My first IEM was the Shure E3c, and it was great for the time.
 
Audiophiles were definitely the driving force behind portable audio technology improvements in these last years, and now we have a vast choice of portable cans and IEMs that can reach prices far higher than the then-fabled Shure E5C, and even higher that the almost-mythical custom IEMs of that era. Unfortunately, it's very clear that they're not made to be used directly out of a DAP's headphone jack. They're hard to drive, they need a lot of juice, and they draw so much attention from a crowd now more accustomed to spend a lot of cash on portable audio, that the mid-tier products now often come from more obscure companies, and they seldom get many reviews.
 
I'll give you a concrete example. These past few days, I've got hold of an Audeze Sine. I read wonderful things about this can, and while it's very clear that you need an amp to bring the Sine to its fullest, many people here say they're happy using it out of an iPhone or some other DAP.
 
... seriously, guys?
 
Out of my iPod, the Sine sounds NOTHING like it's supposed to sound!
Yes, it's airy, spacious, and detailed. But it's definitely struggling, it requires a lot of power, and it has almost no bass to write home about.
The Sine does NOT sound "good enough" out of an iPod/iPhone. It simply doesn't. To say it does is delusional.
 
So today I did a very brief A-B test. I took off the Sine and switched to my JVC HA S400-B, and boom! There's the SOUND.
I know: it's apples and oranges. The Sine is definitely in a different league.
Of course the JVC is less detailed, more congested, and all that jazz.
But you know what? It's FUN! And that's because the iPod is enough to drive it to its fullest. I get the full potential of the headphone, without additional gear and cables and adapters. Also the JVC weights next to nothing, and it costs 1/10th of the Sine.
 
Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking. So I'll make my point clear.
The "portable headphone" market is full of potentially awesome gear that's not really "portable" at all.
If I need a connection cable, a portable amp/DAC, a different cable and whatnot to "fully" drive a portable headphone, then the whole "portable" side of the thing comes tumbling down. I mean, I could understand if someone wanted to use a full-size can on the go, then amping would definitely be required. But products like the Sine are specifically marketed as portable, to be used with portable audio sources. And... they're not! That's a complete lie. I estimate that if a "portable" headphone or IEM can't reach at least 80% of its full potential out of a DAP or smartphone, then it's not "portable" at all (yes, I pulled that percentage out of my ass, but I guess it's as good an estimate as anyone's).
 
To mention some products I've personally tested: the Sennheiser IE80 is portable. The Etymotic ER-4S is not.
The Sennheiser Momentum (first model) is portable. The Audeze Sine is not.
 
I find it incredibly frustrating that so many people, here and elsewhere on the web, are so far up in their audiophile game that they take it for granted that if you want good portable audio, it's only natural to have a portable amp to go with your DAP. Dedicated DAPs are also so taken up in this game, that the iPod Touch has become the cheapest option when it once was the luxury item of this market (the cheapest Android-based touch screen DAPs are way more expensive than the iPod Touch these days). Yeah, the audiophile craze kind of turned the whole point of "portable" audio on its head. Portable used to be affordable, easy to use, and low profile. I feel it's no more. Good affordable sources are rare (smartphones, even high-end ones, often sound quite bad), and truly "portable" headphones and IEMs rarely get enough attention.
 
So I thought, can we make a thread where we recommend portable headphones and IEMs that can be driven to their full, or almost full, potential by your average portable device, be it a smartphone or a dedicated DAP? And I don't mean the obvious answers like Apple's EarPods or your dollar store earbuds that come apart in a week or two. This is Head-Fi, after all. No, I mean those low- to mid-tier products that the average consumer won't buy and not interest themselves in, but that budget-conscious music lovers can appreciate to step up their portable audio game without breaking the bank. I mean, the Shure E3c may sound very limited today, but back then, it was a true revolution for me, and it didn't need a separate amp.
 
I'll make my own suggestions here. This is all stuff that I've personally tried. It's not necessarily my favorite stuff (I've tried and resold a lot of headphones through the years), and some of these may be discontinued, but it's stuff that I know can sound its best straight out of your iPhone.
 
 
These are perfect straight out of your DAP, unamped:
Sennheiser IE8/IE80
Sennheiser Momentum (first version)
Sennheiser HD25-II/Amperior
JVC HA-S400B
Westone UM2
Sony MDR-100AAP
Audio Technica ATH-IM70
 
 
 
While I definitely think these do NOT sound even remotely their best without amping:
Audeze Sine
EarSonics SM64
Sennheiser HD-558
Etymotic ER-4S
 

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